Saturday, 22 September 2012

Great Fred Astaire Book

I recently came across a beautiful tribute to the great Fred Astaire, in the form of a small coffee-table sized hardcover book entitled Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk. I felt lucky to find a copy of this book at such a reasonable price, as it appears to be out of print. However, if you can get your hands on a copy of this treasure (the debut book from Sarah Giles, previous editor-at-large for Vanity Fair), you will find the most loving tribute I have ever seen in print for Mr. A. 

The primary feature of the book is the interviews Giles conducted around the world with Astaire's friends and colleagues, including leading ladies Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Audrey Hepburn, choreographer and kindred spirit Hermes Pan, director Stanley Donen, actress/singer/friend Liza Minnelli, daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie, and many more. Giles includes interview excerpts word-for-word, and as a result, we feel like we're getting a true and well-rounded portrait of the legendary star. 

Adorned with a healthy amount of photos (many that I had never seen before, and from all eras of his life), and divided into themed chapters ("The Artist," "The Astaire Women," "His Private World," and "Finale,"), the book is a well-organized and lovingly presented tribute to a legend. I'm surprised the book has never gotten a re-release.

Highlight anecdotes of the book include Leslie Caron saying that in the rehearsal hall in movie pre-productions, even during a break, Astaire would constantly keep dancing. Caron recalls going out for a breath of fresh air and coming back to Astaire dancing with a coat rack. I guess he didn't tire of his coat rack partner in Royal Wedding! Stanley Donen also mentions how Astaire had copies of all of his dance routines on film, sans the singing. Donen asked to borrow these treasures, Astaire obliged (he kept them in his basement), and it took Donen 4 days to get through all the material!

Friends also mention Astaire's devastation at the loss of his first wife, Phyllis, his finding his heart again with dancer Barrie Chase (some friends and colleagues claim Chase was Astaire's personal favourite dancing partner), and how his grace, kindness, and complete lack of ego was not just something we saw onscreen. According to Jack Lemmon (his costar in The Notorious Landlady), that was the true offscreen Astaire as well. 

I don't want to spoil much more of this book for Astaire fans, since reading through all the anecdotes is such a lovely and personal experience. I urge any Astaire cinephile to track down a copy of this loving book tribute to the screen's most iconic song and dance man. 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

One-Year Anniversary Post! A Bette Davis Appreciation

First of all, I am sorry to have been away from the blogging for so long! I have missed writing, but life got in the way for a little while. But, with the fall season creeping in, it's easier to get back into a writing routine, and I am sure my more regular blogposts will resume!

Secondly, I am celebrating a Classic Movie Moments milestone! September 5th marked the one year anniversary of the blog. It's been such a great opportunity to write my thoughts down about classic film and have audience response from my readers! It's great to know that there are so many Old Hollywood film fans out there. So, thank you, or else Classic Movie Moments wouldn't exist!

And now for the "post proper." Over the past few weeks, I have been watching Bette Davis movies non-stop, and have gained a whole new appreciation for this great actress. I have also just started reading her second autobiography entitled This 'n' That, and through her honest words, have gained a love for this self-confident, forthright, yet vulnerable woman.

While before a few weeks past I had watched quite a few Davis films, watching so many new films (new for me anyway) so close together made me realize the amazing versatility Miss Davis possessed in film. I will talk about each film separately, to best organize my thoughts.

Davis Viewing #1: A Stolen Life (1946)

When I first read the plot summary of this film, I thought it would be a typical melodrama. Woman falls in love with man, man falls in love with twin sister, twin sister dies, and woman assumes life of twin sister to get her man back. Sound ridiculous and totally not plausible? Of course. But does the plot become irresistible and even believable with Davis taking on the roles of both sisters? Absolutely. Davis' performance as sisters Kate and Patricia Bosworth displays some of her most nuanced and understated acting. Her characterizations of "good girl Kate," "not so good girl Patricia," and then "good girl Kate trying to be not so good girl Patricia" are very defined, without being over the top. 

On this film, Warner Brother studio head Jack Warner gave Davis a role in addition to her twin sister performance: producer. With this film, Davis was finally given some of the creative license she had yearned for in her previous years at Warner Brothers. Clearly, she did an admirable job, as the film's special effects, especially for the year 1946, are excellent. While A Stolen Life is a less famous Davis title, it is a must-see for Davis fans. 

Davis Viewing #2: The Catered Affair

When I finally got around to watching The Catered Affair, I had been meaning to see it for a few years. I was not disappointed. In fact, the movie far exceeded my high expectations. Davis, again, gives one of her most understated and beautiful performances as Agnes Hurley. Davis brings vividly to life her portrait of Agnes: a woman whose entire life has been raising children and keeping house, while sharing little affection with her husband Tom, played by the great Ernest Borgnine. When Agnes' daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) becomes engaged, Agnes is committed to giving Jane an extravagant wedding, even if it means putting Tom in the poor house. 

As Agnes, Davis is at once heartbreaking, irritating, laughter-inducing, and, in the end, completely sympathetic. Davis never feared appearing "unattractive" on film, and her courage to not wear makeup in the film makes her Agnes even more honest. She was a true character actress, with no glamour girl vanity about her. Two scenes in particular stand out: her monologue when she talks to Jane about what the reality of marriage (or, rather, her marriage) is, and a scene with Borgnine where she confesses the pain of her marriage over the years, and then her immense guilt that builds when Tom finally unloads on her the feelings he has been holding back their entire marriage.

A revelation for me watching this film was Debbie Reynolds' impeccable and layered performance as Jane. It is the most beautiful performance I have ever seen her give on film, and she essentially steals every scene she is in. Her scene with fiance Ralph (Rod Taylor), where she asks her to promise that they will always be in love, is one of the most real and heartbreaking scenes she ever played on film. This movie is a must for fans of Davis, Borgnine, and Reynolds. Plus, the teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky (of Marty fame) is pitch perfect. 

Davis Viewing #3: Dangerous
I've read lots of opinions of this film, which one Davis a Best Actress Oscar. Most people seem to believe (including Davis) that the Oscar was a consolation prize for her amazing performance the previous year in Of Human Bondage. While this very well may be true, Davis' Joyce Heath is scene-stealing, complex, and mesmerizing. The scene where she seduces Franchot Tone's Don Bellows by improvising a script to a play is one of the best scenes I have ever seen her play on film. While the Production Code prevents us from a satisfying ending, it is still fascinating to see a young Davis portray such a multi-faceted character, and not being afraid to be a character we love to hate.

Davis Viewing #4: The Sisters

This film is a change of pace for Davis. She gets to be a romantic heroine, and the object of Errol Flynn's affection. But, as Louise, Davis still shows a strength and independence that her audience loved her for. She shares a surprising amount of chemistry with Flynn, and makes him look like a much better actor than he actually is. The scenes where she survives the San Francisco earthquake right after Frank (Flynn) leaves her is melodramatic to be sure, but Davis handles the material with her usual professionalism that we can't wait to see if Louise and Frank will be reunited. 

To have this film round out my mini Bette Davis marathon was proof to me at how versatile Davis as an actress was. To play an alcoholic siren in Dangerous, a frustrated housewife in The Catered Affair, a heartbroken woman and a vindictive sister in A Stolen Life, and a true leading lady in The Sisters, and to play each role with equal believability, is no easy task. However, Davis immerses herself in each role, and makes each film a delight and treat to watch. 

While modern audiences and critics tend to pick Katharine Hepburn as the greatest screen actress of all time (the AFI put Katharine Hepburn as the #1 Female Star of film, with Davis one spot behind), my vote would go to Davis any day. Davis had an ability to create fully developed characters by stealing the show but never chewing the scenery. That is the sign of a true talent. Davis said herself that an actor should look like they're "trying a little" on film. But, Davis, never tried "too much." She is a strong presence on film, a characteristic that audiences still love when watching her films today. She is an independent, female powerhouse, and her ever-modern traits will never date her movies. Every generation needs a Bette Davis.